MERS Protocols Bring Back Memories of SARS to Hong Kong

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SARS in Hong Kong
Two nuns ride on Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway wearing masks to protect against SARS in 2003. Photographer: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

When images of spacesuit-clad health workers cordoning off a Hong Kong clinic over a suspected MERS case appeared online this week, the effects were immediate: stocks dropped and a social media frenzy began.

The patient in question tested negative for the virus and the city so far has no confirmed cases. The precautions at the clinic were only a part of an extensive infectious disease response program the city has put in place ever since another coronavirus -- SARS -- devastated it in 2003.

The incident shows how the city’s long experience with infectious diseases from SARS to avian flu is shaping the response of the government -- as well as of its residents and investors. Immediate testing, fever screening at airports and ferry terminals, and quarantine camps are part of the city’s 23-page preparedness plan on MERS. Many of these measures are being put in place now, and may give the city an edge as it seeks to protect itself against the possibility of another epidemic.

Hong Kong stocks rebounded Thursday after the government said no cases of MERS -- or the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome -- had been found in the city so far.

“Since 2003, people are more alert to these outbreaks, but the bad side of that is when rumors spread they can get the wrong idea,” said Leo Poon, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s school of public health. “Overall though, I think the people of Hong Kong understand that we have to implement tough measures to reduce risk, and they are cooperative with that.”

Quarantine Orders

The city’s MERS worries emerged when a South Korean patient passed through Hong Kong in defiance of his quarantine orders. More than a dozen people were put into quarantine for two weeks after sitting near him on a flight from Seoul. South Korea today confirmed four new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome cases, raising the total number to 126.

Hong Kong has a long history of explosive disease outbreaks. Thousands died from bubonic plague, which took hold in the former British colony in 1894 and persisted for decades. In 1968, a novel influenza virus was discovered there that became known as the Hong Kong flu pandemic.

But it was SARS that jolted the city in 2003, infecting 1,755 people there, killing 300, and causing economic losses totaling HK$3.8 billion ($490 million) in two months alone. Tourist arrivals dwindled at the time and businesses from restaurants to taxi cabs slumped.

Hong Kong established a health protection center a year after the SARS outbreak with a HK$500 million donation from the Hong Kong Jockey Club. It now has an annual budget which is triple that. It has also established a research fund for the control of infectious diseases.

Different Pattern

Though MERS belongs to the same family of pathogens as the SARS virus, its trajectory so far in Asia has been far milder. South Korea has reported 126 cases, and China has one. During the SARS epidemic, Hong Kong had 734 confirmed SARS cases in its third week and 17 fatalities, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

MERS can lead to severe illness including respiratory failure, or septic shock. Jenny Tsang, a 48-year-old Hong Kong resident who retired last year after selling her electronics manufacturing business, called her stockbroker in a panic after hearing about MERS. The broker urged her to calm down.

“I know it might be nothing, but it’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Tsang. “Hong Kong seems to be doing their job but I must admit seeing those photos of spacemen in a deserted mall brought back memories I didn’t want to relive.”

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